Japan

Book Review: A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time BeingA Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I attended the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference this week. Just before an afternoon workshop on Wednesday, I chatted with a woman who is writing her memoir.

“I don’t read fiction,” she told me. “Are there any good female writers?”

Not “Are there any female writers you’d recommend?” Just, “Are there any good ones?”

Never mind the 813 ways I wanted to respond to the question. I thought of the last great book I’d read, which happened to be written by a woman. I began to tell her of A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.

I said something about a teenage girl’s diary washing up on the shore of a remote island in Desolation Sound, British Columbia. About a writer in the doldrums, plodding through her memoir. About a mystery and Zen Buddhism and quantum mechanics.

I did a terrible job of describing this beautiful book, for the woman sitting next to me said, “Oh, mysteries. I would never read a mystery. My husband likes P.D. James, though.”

No, wait, I wanted to say. You don’t understand. It’s not a mystery mystery. There’s just this diary of a young girl being bullied and the tsunami and flotsam and Schrödinger’s cat, and …. But it was too late. Class began and we delved into the mysteries of character development.

Her question made me consider the relevance of author gender. A part of the me thinks Who cares if the writer is male or female? Why can’t we categorize a piece as a fine work of prose without the condescending sub-category of “woman/female” writer? We don’t say male writer, now do we? Yet, when it comes to a work as self-referential as A Tale for the Time Being, it is hard to separate the writer from her thematic approach. Men and women do regard time, space, the natural world, memory and mortality differently, don’t we? Or perhaps we articulate the same beliefs and emotions in a different way. I’m getting all tangled up here. Much like Ruth does as she attempts to sort out the mystery of the diary she finds on the beach.

Ozeki uses the avatar of Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu as a literal and figurative bookend. A copy of this 19th century classic is repurposed as a blank journal and written in by Naoko, or Nao, as she prefers to be called. Nao is a young woman, ethnically Japanese but raised in the United States. The late 90’s tech bubble bursts and the economic collapse sends her family back to Japan. There she buys the journal and uses it to escape from the horror of the physical abuse and psychological torture she experiences at her new high school and the tragedy of her father’s depression. Nao is our guide through much of this story and like her name, Nao is a time being. Her now is in the past, but Nao becomes Ruth’s present.

Many years after Nao’s abominable teenage years, Ruth, the story’s main character – a writer and student of Zen Buddhism, much like Ruth, the book’s author – finds the journal. Enclosed in the diary are several letters written in Japanese, which appear to be from a much earlier time than Nao’s diary entries in English. These letters become a mystery within a mystery. Ruth wonders if the carefully packaged journal is flotsam from the 2011 Tohoku tsunami or jetsam from a young woman crying for help.

It is significant that the title of Proust’s epic novel cum memoir is translated either as In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past, for both titles fit Proust’s and Ozeki’s themes (although the first translation is literal). This is a story of time. How truth and memory shift and are reconstructed with time; how impatient we are for troubled times to pass, yet we are breathless with regret when we realize the time we have wasted on the way. It is an ode to the bliss of the present; an elegy to the lost past.

This is also a story that takes time. It asks that you slow down and turn its pages as carefully as Ruth does Nao’s diary. It is a story of images, of settings, nuances and breath which, like Nao’s diary and the old letters Ruth has translated, “reveals its meaning slowly, and is as intimate as skin.”

Ozeki juxtaposes the peace of Ruth’s isolation and simple life on the island with the chaos of Nao’s Tokyo. Yet even the island is subject to the chaos of the natural world. Ruth must dash off e-mails before the latest winter storm knocks out power to their home. She and her husband search their property and beyond for the corpse of the family cat, certain wolves have made quick hors d’oeuvres of kitty. This is in contrast to Nao’s beloved great-grandmother, Jiko, who is a Buddhist nun living a life of elective poverty and self-reliance at a peaceful mountain temple site.

We are reminded that the past never forgets, whether it is found letters or diaries, or a moment captured on the internet that can never truly be erased. We are reminded that it is the present which demands our greatest attention, for the present becomes the past with the beat of a heart, the screech of train, the crash of an airliner into a skyscraper or the crash of a wave on an island.

This is a novel of grand themes, complex themes, themes that require appendices. It is a work of fiction with an extensive bibliography. I tend to steer clear of complicated works of fiction that endeavor to instruct. I simply want a good story. Which Ruth Ozeki offers. Oh boy, does she ever.

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Book Review: The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the AtticThe Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A lovely poemovella. Or novellem? How would one categorize this hybrid poem-novella? Whatever its genre, it is without a doubt eloquent and unforgettable. Within this slim volume the history of 20th century Issei and Nisei - first and second generation Japanese immigrants to the western hemisphere - is told by Japanese women, who must "blend into a room", who must "be present without appearing to exist." Otsuka gives these women fearless, tender, angry, sorrowful voices and dares you to not hear.

Countless ships of "picture brides" arrived at docks in California from Japan at the end of World War I. These young girls clutched photographs of handsome young men they would meet for the first time. The mail-order brides were terrified by the uncertainties of living in America, of becoming wives and lovers to strangers. They were ill from the long voyage at sea and desperately homesick - although most had been sent to America to relieve their families of financial burden; they knew their only future was before them, their only home the one they would build with their stranger-husbands. "Deep down, though, most of us were really very happy, for soon we would be in America with our new husbands, who had written to us many times over the months." Their men had written of good jobs, large homes and shiny cars.

Of course, with very few exceptions, these promises were lies. These women left lives as laborers in Yamaguchi rice paddies or Osaka brothels to become laborers in California fields or maids in mansions. But they survived, creating homes and businesses with their husbands and children, most keeping to the shelter of the local Japanese community - either by choice or by expectation - until the onset of Word War II. And then they, along with their families, neighborhoods and communities, disappeared.

The story is familiar; it is Otsuka's style that makes this work revelatory. It is told in an incantatory fashion, by a chorus of a thousand unified voices. Rather than relying on the traditional arc of plot and character development, Otsuka reveals the experience of a generation of immigrants through the poetic sweep of images and emotions. It is a song of oral history tamed by a pen, but only just so.

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Book Review: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell There is an art to consuming a cup of coffee, particularly if it is the first of the day, when your sleep-fuzzed brain and sluggish muscles yearn for the rush of caffeine. Drink it too quickly, you will burn your tongue and throat and negate the pleasure of its rich warmth curling thickly through your blood. Drink it too slowly and it will cool to a flaccid, bitter memory of what coffee could be.

Reading David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is like consuming that first, vital coffee of the day (I dedicate my very terrible simile to the Dutch, who created the modern stock market, based on the coffee trade in the century before the setting of this novel). If you rush headlong into the adventure, looking for the jolt of plot twists and intrigue, you will miss the nuances of tone and color that ripple through Mitchell's narrative as the points of view and settings change. If you go too slowly, you will lose the heat of the mystery and its complicated cast of characters. But by reading carefully and allowing Mitchell's pacing to steady the hand that is trembling for its narrative fix, you will emerge deeply satisfied.

If you have read any professional reviews of this book, you have been pounded over the head by the reminder that Mitchell has written a straight-on historical fiction. As if it wasn't evident in Mitchell's previous works that he is a master of historical details of language, tone, setting and weaving fact through his fantasy. In this instance, he lands us in Nagasaki Harbor alongside Jacob de Zoet, a young Dutch clerk seeking his fortune as a member of the Dutch East Indies Company. As the 18th century comes to an end, Japan is still a nation of samurai and daimyo, determined to remain closed to foreigners. The Dutch outpost of Dejima, an artificial island in the port of Nagasaki, is the one remaining Western foothold in this land of mist and shadows.

That is the initial setting of the story. Where Mitchell takes you I won't reveal- you've got to invest the time and energy into your own exploration. But read as carefully as the author has written. There is exquisite language that is a luxury to read and there are detours that frustrate until you realize you are happily lost and willing to stay the course because you trust the roads will all meet up again.

There is a secret delight at the start of a certain chapter in the final pages of the books that will have you weak with wonder at the magic of words.

I may return to give this a final, fifth star. I considered early in the novel that I was continuing on only because it was David Mitchell- there is some clunkiness that made me drag my heels and even set it aside for a couple of days. But as I continued to read, I realized I had to set aside my tendency to devour instead of savor. In the end, it was good to the last drop.

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